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Avoiding (and detecting) fallacies

The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Albert O. Hirschman. Harvard University Press, 1991. 198 pages.

Political discourse is a minefield of fallacy. Whether we are considering the arguments of others, or framing an argument of our own, an undetected fallacy may lead us badly astray. Those who argue in good faith work hard to avoid fallacy. Those who argue in bad faith — and there are a great many of them — knowingly employ fallacy and try to sneak it past us. Sometimes they even seem to believe what they say.

Everyone who is exposed to what we call “the marketplace of ideas” should be familiar with the categories of fallacy. Wikipedia has an excellent and concise list of them: List of fallacies.

Hirschman’s The Rhetoric of Reaction is an exploration — partly historical and partly rhetorical — about three categories of fallacy that have repeatedly been employed to block human progress.

The perversity fallacy claims that any attempt to improve the common good will inevitably end up doing the exact opposite of what was intended. An example is the claim that aid to the poor will only make them poorer and further entrap them in poverty.

The futility fallacy claims that any attempt to improve the common good is inevitably useless and will have no effect. An example is the claim that allowing more people to vote (former slaves, say, or women) will not really change anything, because there is some sort of natural law that dictates that “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

The jeopardy fallacy is even sneakier. The jeopardy fallacy claims that any attempt at new progress will inevitably destroy previous progress. An example is the claim that democracy will destroy liberty.

Hirshman includes a quote from a Briton, Sir Henry Maine, who was arguing in the 19th Century that democracy would destroy economic progress:

“Universal suffrage, which today excludes Free Trade from the United States, would certainly have prohibited the spinning jenny and the power loom; it would certainly have forbidden the threshing machine.”

Historically, the same arguments against progress have been used over and over again. The enemies of progress keep on being wrong, and human progress has been steady, though slow, for hundreds of years.1

Do progressives ever make fallacious arguments? Of course they do. Hirschman even has a chapter about that. I am going to make a fallacious claim here as an example. That claim is that conservatives are inevitably much more wrong than progressives because of the “arc of justice.” That is, human progress is inevitable, though gradual, and thus attempts to block progress inevitably and eventually fail, ensuring that conservatives are wrong, wrong, and wrong again.

What is the fallacy in that claim? It’s the proposition that progress is inevitable and the proposition that something we could call the “arc of justice” actually exists. There is a great deal of evidence for the arc of justice. We don’t burn witches anymore; we don’t allow people to own slaves anymore; we don’t put gay people in prison anymore. But despite the evidence for ongoing progress, I cannot prove the existence of an arc of justice any more than an argument from futility can prove that things never really change. Still, I can modify that claim and have a better chance of being right. Here is a modified claim: If there is such a thing as the arc of justice, then the opponents of progress are doomed to almost always being wrong.

I have tried to avoid polemic here, because Hirschman’s book is certainly not a polemic. He does say, though, in his final chapter, that conservatives have effectively used ridicule and a mocking attitude against progressives, while progressives have remained “mired in earnestness.” So here I will indulge in a bit of un-earnest ridicule: Show me a conservative, and I will show you a mean, wrong, wrongheaded person who knows next to nothing but thinks he knows quite a lot. It may be possible to prove me wrong, but it may not be easy.

1. Thomas Piketty, A Brief History of Equality.

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